Of Families, Systems and Toxics and Venom

[This post is essentially a letter which I wanted to write to my friend Chintan Girish Modi this morning. Not having the stamina to write the letter, stamp it and post it immediately, I decided that I would put this up as a blog post.]

Dear Chintan,

This morning I went for a long run. I ran about 12 kms. During the run, a question struck me and it stayed with me through the run. I am cogitating on it, still. The question is: what is the difference between toxic and venom?

I thought about this question in the context of dysfunctional relationships in families and the attitudes and behaviours of certain people in the family system. I wondered, thereafter, when the ill-will in one person should be classified as toxic or venomous and how difficult it is to transform the toxicity or venom of a person’s behaviour into something productive, positive and life-giving (not that toxins and venom are not life giving ….) …

Dear Chintan, I have always thought of relationships, more so now when I am studying and simultaneously dealing with several relationships around space, territory and property. I have also, often times, thought of families and how individuals function within families, giving rise to compensations, over-compensations, adjustment, rebellion, conformity, all of this leading to the organism called the family system.

My interest in families as systems took root when my friend Leslie Nazareth introduced me to the works of John Bradshaw. Bradshaw is a psychologist and also a vet who wrote about his life story of how his father prevented him from becoming a vet because the father felt that it was too sissy a profession for his son. John Bradshaw complied with his father’s wishes and later, in his life, developed several illnesses resulting from the unfulfilled desire to become a vet. When John Bradshaw eventually went on to study veterinary science and train to become a vet, a lot of his personality problems improved. Bradshaw then went on to write these two books, which Leslie introduced me to, about the family and how the family functions as a system. By system, Bradshaw meant that when someone or something is amiss or is not right in the family, other members learn to behave in ways that compensate for what is missing / not right, thereby producing the system. This compensation takes place by learning behaviours and performing them, to such an extent that the behaviours become part of the individual’s personality. These behaviours can be like reactions and they can come to define the individual within the family system and his/her relations with others inside and outside the family. Individuation – the act of becoming a person with one’s own values, beliefs and choices – also involves, fundamentally, unlearning these reactions and / or becoming aware of these reactions and freeing oneself of them by refusing to react and compensate in particular ways. For example, we often see that between two siblings, one tends to be conforming and the other tends to be rebellious. This happens owing to a variety of reasons. Between my sister and me, I was the conforming one because I wanted to protect my mother and ‘keep’ the ‘peace’ in the house in the face of a (then) highly short-tempered father. I automatically became labeled as the ‘obedient’ one. My sister, on the other hand, was a rebelling person, right from the start. I admired her rebellion, but later realized that her rebellion sprung from my being the ‘obedient’ child who respected and accepted all of her parents’ decisions and did just as they wanted me to do and be. So here I was, gaining all the approval and social standing from my parents for being obedient, and my sister who saw my obedience as unacceptable, began to rebell. He rebellion was also a response to my parents’ desires for her to be someone they wanted her to be while she wanting to be her own person, and also their placing me above her during their social interactions with their friends and extended family members. And, I was meek in the face of her rebellion which led to a domination-victim relationship between my sister and me, much like it was between my father and mother (then). In Bradshaw’s analysis, both obedience and rebellion are reactions that we come to acquire during our growing up years.

Freedom or becoming a person of one’s own, is a matter of freeing oneself of these reactions. As I write the words “freeing oneself of the reactions”, I am cringing because these words are much too easy to write, but extremely difficult to actualize and internalize in life. To free oneself of reactions requires a great amount of courage as well as faith – courage to stand up to choices and circumstances that follow the decision to free oneself of reactions (and this is a long-term process). Faith is required in order to feed the courage and to know that actions taken and choices made with the right intentions and spirit will bear their own fruit, at some point, if not immediately.

Dear Chintan, some days ago, some crazy things happened in my household which is why the question about toxicity and venom and the other questions I mentioned above, came to my mind this morning. It has been both a struggle and a worthwhile process where my parents and I have individuated in our own ways. This does not mean that we are free and liberated completely. But at least, some of our reactions have changed. Some persist, but most importantly, there is a great degree of trust and understanding that my parents and I share with each other. This has been one of the most significant achievements of my life and I believe it must be the same for my parents who have walked a considerable path to change themselves. However, I still have a very, very long way to go in my relationship with my husband and his parents. Not all parents are the same and not each time do both parties – parent and child – walk a mile each to come to a meeting point where there is agreement and disagreement without there necessarily being venom or toxicity on either of the sides. I look at my husband and I still wonder, how it has been possible for him to be his own person despite the fact that his parents are completely reverse of what he is? I wonder how he is such an uninhibited person despite the fact that this childhood was filled with inhibitions and restrictions? He says that the experience of living away from his parents, when he was in his teenage years and early 20’s helped him a lot to make his own decisions and establish his own set of values. I think, by far, what is true for both him and me, in our respective journeys, is that we met and related to a wide variety of peoples and processes during our growing up years which, in a very interesting way, enabled us also to rejuvenate and regenerate our personalities and our relationships with family members.

What happens when parents and children do not change and when the dysfunctional family system persists? How do you know there is dysfunctionality in the family, in the first place and what the dysfunctionality/s exactly is/are? The second question may be easy to answer as an outsider, but difficult to even become aware of when one is part of the dysfunctional system and is not even able to see what is going on. The first question is what is interesting to me, given my own position within my husband’s family. And it is this first question that has led to the thought this morning about what is the difference between venom and toxicity?

Dysfunctionality happens when our reactions and behaviour patterns develop and continue in order to protect one member in the family from another. Dysfunctionality also happens when you try to shield yourself from your family members in ways that are not direct and involve hiding, lying and veiling. It is not easy to come direct and/or clean, but the process of unlearning the behaviours causing dysfunctionality is very rewarding and generative. However, a person remains stuck in a behaviour pattern when other family members continue to veil this person’s behaviour with well-meaning intentions to protect this person from others because the protectors believe the dysfunctional person is weak and therefore needs protection. The behaviour pattern of not only this person, but the associated family members continue to perpetuate, creating the dysfunctional system and leading to toxicity that manifests in a variety of ways including in relations outside the family.

This morning, I thought of one such dysfunctional person in my husband’s family whose behaviour I find overbearing and intolerable. I find that this person has turned extremely toxic and that his presence is adding to toxins in my body and causing reactions such as stress-related illnesses. At that time, I also sincerely wondered whether there is any way in which toxicity can be transformed into something positive and generative and if so, how could this happen? Last year, running helped me transform some of the dysfunctional trajectories, shaping up in my life then, into something very productive and generative – running helped me to develop emotional and spiritual strength to not fall into a morass and become a toxic or venomous person. In this same experience and spirit, I wonder whether the toxicity of the person and personality of this member in my husband’s family can ever be transformed in his lifetime? On an emotional and sincerity plane, I truly hope that this happens. But for this to happen, the other members supporting his weaknesses and perpetuating his toxicity have to become aware of their reactions and at the same time, this toxic person has to have to some life transforming experience which will change his perspective altogether ….

As I write this letter to you, someone I met during the garage sale for Ekta and Yashu’s film “Behind the Tin Sheets” has just mentioned my blog post following the sale on the FB wall of her event which involves recycling things. I wonder whether toxicity can be recycled … I know that I cleared things in my house, in the beginning of this year, to alleviate myself of the toxicity that had spread into the environment as a result of a dysfunctional family system and dysfunctional family members in the household I am living. And the clearing of things to make mental and emotional space for myself aided me in relieving myself of toxicity. I really hope toxicity and toxic persons can be recycled and turned into something that is life giving … And I hope the toxins in me make me a more sublime and wiser person …

Dear Chintan, on this note of hope, I should end this long letter here. I hope you stay well, that you remain aware, and that there are thousands of flowers blooming and generative in the relationships you treasure in your life ….

With love,

Zainab

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About writerruns

I am lost in life. I now run to lose myself and to lose the handles I have been holding on to.
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